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October 25, 2011

World Series Prospectus

Mixed-Up Confusion

by Jay Jaffe

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Given not only his history but the clinic in bullpen management that Tony La Russa put on in the NLCS, it’s difficult to believe that he could wind up botching a situation as badly as he did in the eighth inning of Monday's Game Five of the World Series. But thanks to a miscommunication between the Cardinals' dugout and their bullpen, a manager who has spent his career chasing the platoon advantage ad nauseam was left with lefty Marc Rzepczynski facing righty Mike Napoli with the bases loaded and one out. Meanwhile, the pitcher he wanted to face the Rangers' best hitter at the game’s pivotal moment wasn't even warmed up. Napoli, whose three-run homer had broken the game open the night before, pounded a double off the right-center field wall, breaking a 2-2 tie and helping the Rangers take a 3-2 lead in the Series.

Even before that fateful matchup, La Russa made numerous head-scratching decisions, ordering three sacrifice bunts and the first of two intentional walks, a free pass of Nelson Cruz that after the technical snafus were explained loomed as his biggest miscalculation. He also watched Albert Pujols call a hit-and-run play, then fail to protect runner Allen Craig by swinging, resulting in Craig getting gunned down by Napoli. Two innings later, on a hit-and-run called from the dugout, the same combo teamed for a strikeout-throw out double play that took the Cardinals down to their final out. If a Hall of Fame-bound manager has had a worse night in a nine-inning World Series game—for the sake of argument, we'll chalk up Joe Torre's decision to pitch Jeff Weaver in 2003 as an extra-inning folly—then I haven’t seen it.

As with three of the first four games of the Series, this was another low-scoring affair; "pitcher's duel" may be giving it too much credit. The Cardinals struck first against C.J. Wilson, who after an eight-pitch first inning that saw Pujols fly out on a 3-0 pitch, settled into what my friends and I call Granny Gooden mode — which is to say that he navigated the Cardinal lineup like an elderly woman on an icy staircase, in a manner similar to the latter-day Doc. He’d given the Rangers a similar start in Game One, but this time he was backed by a blooper reel. Matt Holliday walked to lead off the second inning, and took second on a wild pitch, and Lance Berkman came back from an 0-2 count to walk as well. After David Freese flied out, Yadier Molina came back from 0-2 to single in Holliday, with Berkman taking third when left fielder David Murphy overran the ball, then bobbled it. Skip Schumaker, starting in center field for the slumping Jon Jay, hit a hard smash to first base that Mitch Moreland dropped, preventing him from throwing home for a play on Berkman; he got the out at first, but the run scored. Murphy partially atoned for his sin by laying out for a diving catch of Nick Punto's bloop, but when it was all said and done, Wilson had thrown 30 pitches while showing that he had no putatway. Punto provided high comedy by carrying his bat all the way to first base and trying—unsuccessfully—to break it over his knee once the ball was caught. You leave that to the big boys, Little Nicky Punto.

The Cardinals looked as though they would add to their lead in the third, when Wilson made a terrible backhanded throw to first base on a Rafael Furcal bunt, the ball skipping past Moreland as Furcal took second. La Russa gift-wrapped an out by ordering Craig to sacrifice Furcal to third base, though why he did so is unclear; it's not as though he was avoiding a potential double play. Ron Washington responded to this largesse by intentionally walking Pujols, and as in the fifth inning of Game One, the move worked, as Wilson got Holliday to ground to Adrian Beltre for a 5-4-3 double play.

The Rangers, who had gone hitless through the first two innings against Chris Carpenter, got on the board in the bottom of the inning via Mitch Moreland’s solo homer, and it looked as though they might get more when Elvis Andrus reached on a bunt single to the left of the mound, followed by a Josh Hamilton single, but Michael Young grounded out to end the threat.

After grinding through a 1-2-3 fourth inning on 21 pitches, 10 of the against Freese, Wilson, who had been elevating his pitches for most of the night, found trouble in the fifth via a Schumaker single and a four-pitch Punto walk. Wasting fingerslike he had them to spare, La Russa again gave the Rangers an out, this time via a Furcal sacrifice. Wilson buckled down to strike out Craig on a hanging 84 mph slider that could have been crushed. Again, Washington walked Pujols to face Holliday, and for the third time this series, the move paid off; on a full count, he hit a routine grounder to Andrus.

Still trailing 2-1, Wilson finally gave way in the sixth after striking out Berkman but giving up a single to Freese. Unable to replicate Derek Holland's ability to establish the inner half of the plate, he struggled for strikes with his off-speed stuff, getting 19 out of 35 pitches from among his curve, slider, and changeup. He threw first-pitch strikes to just 10 of the 24 hitters and put nine men on via four hits and five walks (two intentional) while striking out three. Nonetheless, the hits were nothing but singles, only one of which came with a man on base, and got the benefit of a double play and two silly sacrifices.

Scott Feldman, roughed up for three runs on Saturday after 10 1/3 innings of post-season shutout relief, cleaned up Wilson's mess to keep it a one-run game. He surrendered a single to Molina and a grounder to Schumaker that moved both runners into scoring position, but caught a break when La Russa let Punto bat in a high-leverage situation, bypassing the benched Jay; he struck out swinging at a 79 mph slider.

Carpenter hadn't exactly cruised to this point, but after getting just 24 strikes in 43 pitches over the first three innings, he got 21 in 28 pitches in the fourth and fifth. After throwing just seven curveballs in Game One to protect his elbow, he had reintroduced the hook, throwing 25 from among his 101 pitches. Alas, one of those curves didn't do what it was supposed to do; on an 0-1 pitch, Adrian Beltre dropped to his knee as though he were proposing marriage before connecting for a towering solo shot to left, tying the game.

So we had a 2-2 game through six innings, one that didn't look all that different from the Series' other low-scoring affairs in terms of the breaks and the questionable tactical decisions balancing out. From the seventh inning onward, things got weird, and went almost entirely the Rangers' way. Alexi Ogando, who had given up five hits, two walks and four runs in an inning of work split over three previous appearances after dominating in the first two rounds, relieved Feldman, and after striking out Furcal, walked Craig. After getting a called strike on an 85 mph slider on the outside corner, he threw a high and outside 98 mph fastball that Pujols took; Craig, who had broken for second base, looked back at the plate as though expecting a hit-and-run, and was out by a mile when Napoli made a strong throw to Ian Kinsler. "It was a hit-and-run and Ogando threw an unhittable pitch," Craig explained later.

Even given that Pujols was the majors' easiest player to double up, with a 4.9 DP%, it was a curious move. In the Fox booth, after looking at the replay of the post-out discussion between La Russa and Craig, Tim McCarver and Joe Buck deduced that Pujols must have called for the hit-and-run himself, but failed to live up to his end of the deal. La Russa would only say that it was "a mix-up," refusing to assign blame. Pujols initially wouldn't admit whether he called the play either. "That's something that I don't know, (I've done) maybe 200 times… That's secret. I can't tell you how I play my game.'' Later, he copped to it: “A hit-and-run was put on… By me, is that a problem?”

With two outs, the bases now empty, and a 1-1 count on Pujols, Washington decided he had it too easy. He complicated matters by choosing to intentionally walk the slugger yet again and face Holliday, just 2-for-17 in the Series to that point, but still hitting .286 with a .375 OBP for the postseason. Naturally, he singled. Perhaps hoping to fill out his Frequent Passer card before the night was out—the 11th one is free—Washington then ordered Ogando to walk Berkman, loading the bases. From two strikes away to this, almost entirely the manager’s doing Fortunately for the Rangers, Freese hit the first pitch to Hamilton for a routine fly out.

After the Rangers went down scoreless in the seventh, Carpenter's final inning, the Cardinals returned to their out-giving ways in the eighth. Still facing Ogando, Molina reached on an infield single to Andrus, who bounced a jump-throw from deep in the hole when he could have set his feet to throw out the glaciating catcher. On came lefty Darren Oliver, so La Russa replaced the lefty Schumaker with righty pinch-hitter Ryan Theriot, who bunted Molina to second. In yet another WTF moment, La Russa allowed the light-hitting Punto to bat for himself instead of going to his bench for Jay. Repeat: the Cardinals gave up an out so that Punto, 6-for-31 in the postseason and .249/.325/.327 for his career, could hit with a runner in scoring position. Punto took a fastball way inside, fouled off two more inside pitches that according to PITCHf/x would have been balls, and then fanned on an 89 mph fastball down and away. Oliver then got Furcal to ground out.

As weird as the past inning and a half had been, nothing could top the bottom of the eighth. La Russa called upon Octavio Dotel, who smothered righties at a .154/.198/.211 clip this season. Dotel left a slider to Michael Young too high in the zone, and the Rangers' DH drove it into the right-center field gap for a double. He recovered by striking out Adrian Beltre on two fastballs and a cutter, all of them high enough to be borderline if not balls. Then, rather than let his righty specialist go after righty Nelson Cruz—who hit .243/.289/.459 against righties this year, admittedly, an uncharacteristic performance after a .272/.328/.526 line over the previous three seasons—La Russa ordered Dotel to walk him, preferring to summon lefty Marc Rzepczynski to face lefty David Murphy. The Rzepper held same-siders to a .163/.256/.221 line this year, while the Murph hit just .215/.274/.234 against them, but despite those minuscule numbers on both sides of the equation, Murphy reached base, hitting a first-pitch comebacker that deflected off Rzepczynski and to Punto, who tried to bare-hand the ball but couldn't find the handle, loading the bases.

Shockingly, La Russa left Rzepczynski in to face Napoli. The Rzepper isn't just a LOOGY, but his .275/.365/.383 line against righties bettered his career numbers, while Napoli murderizes southpaws (.319/.430/.619 this year, .294/.400/.555 career). La Russa seemed to be asleep at the wheel, though he certainly became much more animated once Napoli drilled a two-run double to right center. That Rzepczynski stuck around to strike out the lefty Moreland seemed a shaky premise for his having been left to face Napoli; at the time, confusion reigned. The surreality continued when Lance Lynn was summoned to—are you kidding me?—intentionally walk Kinsler before yielding to Jason Motte, who finally struck out Andrus.

After the game, La Russa explained (and I use that word loosely) that his intention had been for Motte to warm up alongside Rzepczynski, and come in to face Napoli. However, bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist didn't hear the instruction correctly over the crowd noise. After summoning Rzepczynski, La Russa called back and asked again for Motte to warm up, but Lilliquist misheard him again and instead got up Lynn, who after 47 pitches on Saturday night wasn't supposed to be available except in an emergency situation. "I saw Lynn and was like, 'OK, what are you doing here?'" La Russa told reporters. Oy vey.

The comedy of errors wasn't done. Neftali Feliz, on to protect a 4-2 lead, hit Craig in the shoulder blade after getting two strikes on him, bringing the tying run to the plate in you-know-who. None of the eight pitches Feliz threw Pujols were in the strike zone according to PITCHf/x; he took strike one inside, then fouled off an inside slider to go 0-2. He battled back to a full count, fouled two pitches off as Craig broke for second, and then swung and missed at an outside fastball that would have been ball four. Craig was thrown out by Napoli for the second time in three innings. Apparently, it was another busted hit-and-run play, this time ordered by La Russa, though you’d think he might have discouraged that sort of thing after the seventh inning mishap. Instead, the Cards were down to their final out. They still had a shot at tying the game when Holliday worked a walk, but Feliz got ahead of Berkman 0-2, and five pitches in, fooled him on an 81 mph slider for strike three.

By the box score, the Cardinals screwed this one up seven ways to Sunday. They gave up three outs on sacrifice bunts and two via Craig's caught stealings, which helps to explain why they netted just two runs on seven hits (all singles) and nine walks. Five times, they got the leadoff hitter on base, but only once did he come around to score. They left 12 men on base, and went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Meanwhile, their four relievers combined to allow five baserunners and two runs in one inning of work, undoing Carpenter's strong seven-inning, two-run effort. They handed this game to the Rangers on a silver platter

 As for Texas, while they left 10 men on base, four of their nine hits went for extra bases. Their four relievers combined for 3 2/3 innings of shutout ball despite allowing seven baserunners, three of them via intentional walks. For the second night in a row, Napoli was the biggest bat despite hitting eighth; he's 4-for-13 with a double, two homers and a whopping nine RBI. I'm not going to defend Washington's strategy of batting him so low while continuing to bat Hamilton third, but the depth of the Rangers' lineup has given the Cardinals' pitchers few places to hide, and by executing in some critical spots, they’ve made their manager look lucky if not exactly smart. The bottom line is that they’re one win away from a world championship, and that has to count for something.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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